Hours before Steven* was due to compete in his second professional eSports tournament, another team-member offered him a pill. “I had taken Adderall for a while when I was younger to treat my ADHD,” he says. “So I knew from prior experience that it helps with stress and concentration.” Steven, who was 16 at the time and who is now a third year university student in Kentucky, didn’t hesitate. “I took it,” he says. “I shouldn’t have. But it was amazing – like a kind of legal speed. Before, I’d suffered from nerves when competing in front of an audience. The atmosphere got to me. But when I played on Adderall and I was only focused on what was in front of me. It made me a far better player.”
Adderall, referred to by some users as ‘Addy’, is a prescription amphetamine usually prescribed to treat narcolepsy and treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. In sufficient doses, Adderall (and other related drugs such as Vyvanse and Ritalin) greatly increase the user’s ability to concentrate and ward off fatigue. As such, it’s often referred to as a “smart drug”, infamously used by students who need to study for extended periods. But Adderall has other side effects. It can improve reaction times, cognitive control and even temporarily build muscle strength – properties that make it an ideal enhancement for athletes.
“I took the drug regularly, whenever I was playing games online and at professional competitions. I ended up getting addicted to the stuff.”
“There’s no question Adderall’s a performance enhancing drug,” Dr. Gary Wadler, ex-chairman of the World Anti-Doping Agency’s Prohibited List Committee told the Seattle Times in 2012, after two professional American football players reportedly tested positive for the drug. Many professional sporting bodies including the NCAA, the MLB and the NFL have banned its use in the past five years. Players caught using the drug for anything other than medicinal purposes face severe penalties. In 2012 Carlos Ruiz, a catcher for the Philadelphia Phillies, received a 25-game suspension for using Adderall.
Video game players have no practical need for the athleticism, vigour and physical power of professional tennis, baseball or football players. Cyber-athletes do not embody abstractions such as power and grace – they leave that to their virtual representations, which fight and flex on the screen. They are closer to chess professionals in this sense: sedentary, desk-bound. As such doping appears to have no obvious role in competitive game-playing. But Adderall is peculiarly well suited to the medium, where victory depends on a competitor’s alertness, ability to concentrate and hand-to-eye-coordination. As one StarCraft player wrote in 2011 on the game’s official forums: “Adderall is basically a stimpack for gamers.”
After the tournament, Steven became a frequent Adderall user. “I immediately made an appointment to see my doctor and got a prescription,” he says. “From then on I took the drug regularly, whenever I was playing games online and at professional competitions. I ended up getting addicted to the stuff.” Steven saw immediate benefits. He joined a Halo team and began negotiations with an official sponsor. From then on, Steven says that he would only play in tournaments while using Adderall. “It was a significantly different experience playing in a tournament while on the drug,” he says. “On Adderall I would never freak out. Stress had no effect. Adrenaline can be useful in eSports, but the benefits of Adderall far outweighed them.”
Few professional cyber athletes are willing to admit to Adderall use. Many professional or semi-professional players, who admit to taking the drug to improve their video game playing performance privately, refused to go on the record for this article, even under cover of anonymity. But discussion of the drug in and around the sport is widespread and, often, public. In 2013 James ‘Clayster’ Eubanks, a professional Call of Duty player who has earned close to $100,000 in tournament winnings, was accused of taking Adderall during professional matches by a rival team. Eubanks staged an open Q&A session on Reddit, during which he admitted taking prescription amphetamines to treat his ADD since the age of eight. But he added that he would “never hand it out to my teammates like candy or anything.” Eubanks refused to discuss the issue any further, but not before he’d charged his accusers of abusing the substance. “Impact is looking for excuses to why they lost,” he wrote. “Besides, if you watch the [videos] you can clearly see Karma & Killa are on it.”
Steven believes Adderall abuse is rampant in eSports in America. “It’s very, very, very widespread,” he says. “I was friends with most of the top pro Halo players and most of them took Adderall. In amateur play it’s huge too.” Steven claims that pills are regularly sold at professional tournaments. “People manage to get an Adderall prescription then they either take the drug themselves or sell it on. I’ve seen people sell it at tournaments for anything from $10 to $40 a pill. I was on a high dosage. A 25mg pill would last me six hours. But the average user that doesn’t take it regularly would probably be fine with 10-15mg.”
Adderall’s ubiquity, particularly in America, where one study estimates between 20 and 30 per cent of college students have taken the drug, has eliminated much of the social stigma associated with other amphetamines. But few athletes, cyber or otherwise, are willing to admit non-medicinal use. “I know a number of professional players who take Adderall,” says Bjoern Franzen, who worked in eSports marketing for close to a decade. “But it’s highly unlikely that anyone is willing to talk about it, as it means they’ll ruin their future career in the sport, and the ability to support themselves and their families. Just as there are ‘no gay soccer players’, so there are ‘no doping cyberatheletes’ – for the exact same reason.”
Under the cover of anonymity, players appear more willing to admit taking the drug as a way to improve competitive play. One poster on Battle.net, the official forums for StarCraft, wrote: “Adderall, dexedrine, methylphenidate are basically mind steroids. I know that I personally and many friends of mine play RTS a lot better when using any of those drugs.” Another agrees: “I use addy and play StarCraft all the time. It helps. A strong 30 mg instant release pill will send me into overdrive mode for about 10 hours straight.”
“I know a number of professional players who take Adderall, but it’s highly unlikely that anyone is willing to talk about it.”
But some believe the use of amphetamines in eSports is being exaggerated. “These claims comes from people trying to get their five minutes of fame,” says Alexander T. Müller, Managing Director of SK Gaming, one of the largest eSports organisations, which was founded in Germany in 1997. “People claim they’ve seen these drugs being sold at events. When? Where? Have these people ever managed a professional player, or got to know one?” Müller claims that, in his ten years of attending eSports tournaments, he has never seen Adderall being sold to or used by players. “I strongly believe that ADHS is overhyped,” he says. “I also believe that Adderall is overhyped, too.”
Michal Blicharz is managing director of the Electronic Sports League, which claims to be the ‘world’s largest eSports company’. The ESL (which one player describes as the FC Bayern Munich of eSports), organises events at all levels, from local cups to major events, including, in 2014, a Dota 2 event held at Madison Square Garden in New York City. Blicharz is a former journalist who, several years ago, looked into the use of drugs in eSports. “Ritalin and Adderall are often mentioned, but drug-taking did not seem commonplace at the highest levels of eSports at the time,” he says. “I do know players who take Valium to calm their nerves, but that’s the extent of it. I don’t think that as a whole, players reach for drugs thinking that they will improve performance. The most important thing in eSports is good spatial awareness and hand-eye coordination. There are not many drugs out there that improve one of these areas without taking away from another.”
For Blicharz, there are economic reasons why he believes the use of amphetamines in eSports is unlikely to be pervasive. “The stakes in eSports are, bar a couple of exceptions, not high enough to inspire people to experiment with drugs,” he says. “Besides, top players make enough money from streaming their games on Twitch to not have to rely on prize winnings to make a living. That takes away much of the perceived need to do something stupid.”
Franzen firmly disagrees: “Back when tournament prizes consisted of a few graphic cards, a shiny cup and a kiss on the cheek from a hostess, people didn’t need to risk their health. But today eSports is a multi-billion dollar industry and the prizes can reach a million dollars per player in some team games. If you can be 23 years old with a million dollars in the bank, life offers you a lot more opportunities. The incentive to find something that gives you an edge is high.”
Likewise, the need for teams to attract sponsors, both to legitimise their efforts and provide an income, provides motivation to do anything that might give a player’s team the edge, according to Franzen. “Teams who don’t win tournaments don’t attract sponsors,” he says. “If you don’t have sponsors you can’t afford to send your teams or individual players to tournaments. It’s a never-ending cycle of pressure on all sides. The sponsors want a return in investment, the teams pressure players into winning, and the players are pressured into winning to earn a living or satisfy the organisation with which they are contracted.”
Sasha Hostyn, better known to her supporters as ‘Scarlett’, is the top StarCraft 2 player in North America and has been for a number of years. Still in her early 20s, Hostyn’s career earnings are close to Franzen’s estimate, but she maintains that they have been fairly won. “I have never done anything like Adderall and nobody that I know who plays the game has,” she says, before admitting that her one vice is a “mug of hot chocolate” before a major game. Hostyn is a significant talent, however ( she was recently profiled by the New Yorker ). Surely the temptation is there for less able players? “It’s probably happened, for sure,” she says. “But it should be disallowed. Perhaps we’re not at a point where tournaments are large enough? Organisers don’t really have rules for this stuff at the moment. They should have rules, but I’m not sure how they would be enforced. Testing might be too invasive.”
Many eSports tournaments do, in fact, have rules against the use of performance-enhancing drugs – although none explicitly ban Adderall. The ESL’s rulebook, for example, states: ‘To play a match, be it online or offline, under the influence of any drugs, alcohol, or other performance enhancers is strictly prohibited, and may be punished with exclusion.’ But Riot Games, creator of League of Legends, one of the most widely played competitive games in the world today, and the organiser of its associated professional league, LCS, does not explicitly ban substance abuse. It is instead, banned implicitly, a Riot spokesperson explained on email, referring to rule 10.2.8 in the company’s handbook which states: ‘A Team Member may not engage in any activity which is prohibited by common law, statute, or treaty and which leads to or may be reasonably deemed likely to lead to conviction in any court of competent jurisdiction.’
Where rules are in place, there is currently little done to enforce them. Riot does not test for drug use, and, to date, no one has been banned for substance abuse from the LCS. “Some organisations have a zero tolerance policy on drugs,” says Franzen, who worked with Müller at SK Gaming, which has such a policy, for a number of years. “But as there is no-one enforcing the rules, who is going to judge a player? It’s hard to tell if a player is pumped because they’re about to go into an important game or because they just visited to the bathroom and popped a pill half an hour ago.”
Alex Lim is secretary general of the International e-Sports Federation, an organisation based in Seoul that represents eSports leagues to mainstream sporting authorities, including Sport Accord, which represents FIFA and the Olympic Council. “We have noticed the common use of such substances in eSports events, and its serious side effects,” says Lim. The IeSF is an official signatory of the World Anti-Doping Agency, which prohibits the use of performance enhancing drugs in members’ tournaments. WADA’s rules currently ban the use of Adderall in certain sports such as golf, archery, ski jumping and motorsports – a list to which Lim hopes to add eSports. “The IeSF has recently proposed eSports is added to the list of sports which prohibit beta blockers such as Adderall by WADA. It is in the process of being assessed now.”
Beyond the risk of bringing an emerging sport into disrepute, Lim believes there is a moral responsibility to protect the players themselves. “The side effects of beta blockers are significant,” says Lim before listing symptoms such as nausea, diarrhoea, bronchospasm, dyspnea, bradycardia, hypotension, heart failure, fatigue, dizziness, hair loss, abnormal vision, hallucinations, insomnia, sexual dysfunction and erectile dysfunction. “The priority issue is to protect eSports athletes from these side effects,” he says.
Dr. Carl L. Hanson, Program and Associate Professor at the Department of Health Science, Brigham Young University, who conducted a recent study into the use of Adderall among American university students, is equally concerned about the drug’s effects. “Adderall use can lead to weight loss, loss of appetite and other adverse effects,” he says. “There is plenty of evidence out there that the amphetamine abuse can cause brain damage.” Meanwhile, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency has placed Adderall on its Schedule 2 list of drugs, which lists substances with a high potential for abuse and the potential for leading to severe psychological or physical dependence, including depression, hostility and paranoia.
Steven has vivid memories of these effects from when he was regularly using the drug. “I lost maybe 50 pounds in three months after I started taking Adderall,” he says. “That’s insanely fast. I’d have to physically force myself to eat. Then, I started to develop issues with my stomach.” Steven had seen the effects of prolonged drug abuse first hand: a close family member had been addicted to crystal meth. “My cousin told me that his experiences on Adderall weren’t substantially different to those he’d had while on crystal meth. That’s when I decided to stop. I didn’t want to keep going down that path. I had lost too much weight.”
After six months of using Adderall as a way to improve his performance playing video games, Steven decided to stop. The consequences of his decision, and the way in which he carried it out, were severe. “I made the mistake of going cold turkey,” he says. “For two weeks I had terrible withdrawals. I couldn’t get out of bed; I was shaking violently. All over I felt like liquid. I couldn’t move my body. I hated every moment of the time.” He also noticed a drop in his performance. “For about a month I noticed a decline in my abilities while playing games,” he said. “Then it slowly began to even out.”
“I know how well I play while I’m on it. But I also remember how it affected my health.”
Steven is quick to advise young players to stay away from the drug. “It’s something that should be eliminated, not just from eSports, but from the market entirely,” he says. “These 15-16 year olds who go to their first tournaments, just like I did, and are offered Adderall either by a team mate or a seller at the event… It’s not something that you ever want to partake in. I don’t even understand why they prescribe this stuff to anyone. All of the tournament organisers are aware that it’s an issue. But how do you eliminate it without testing?”
Those who have a vested interest the legitimisation of eSports as a ‘real’ sport have been quick to copy the practices of their counterparts in mainstream sport. Teams and individual players court sponsors and sign marketing deals brokered by well-paid managers. Gaming houses place eSports on the map, providing training facilities in which athletes can live and prepare together. eSports organisers often hold competitive events in arenas loaned from sport (Los Angeles’ Staples and Galen Centers, Paris’ Palais Omnisports de Paris-Bercy and the Sangam Stadium in Seoul, the cavernous venue in which the 2002 FIFA World Cup final took place, have all hosted eSports finals). Through mimicry and association, eSports slowly gains legitimacy.
The practice of doping is, perhaps, another way for cyber athletes to mimic their counterparts in football, track and field and so on, and demonstrate that they too take their chosen sport seriously enough to cheat. Drug testing would, somewhat perversely, further legitimise eSports. Besides, if, truly, there is a drug that improves one’s skill on the virtual battlefields, it proves that these virtual battlefields require skill in the first place – a fact that can be difficult to perceive for the casual onlooker, lost in the squall of meters, gauges and arcane rules. But for the individuals involved, the repercussions run much deeper than appearances.
Today, Steven plays Counter-Strike and Hearthstone at a competitive level. He is, at times, tempted to return to the drug. “It’s always there in the back of your mind,” he says. “I know how well I play while I’m on it. But I also remember how it affected my health. And I remember the withdrawals. They were absolutely disgusting. I hated every second of it and I hated myself. I don’t think I’ll ever go back.”
The abuse of Adderall – a drug with little of the stigma associated with, say, its close relative speed – will not bring eSports into disrepute. eSports are currently too far from the realm of cultural legitimacy to be undermined by any doping scandal. But drugs can ruin a sport even (perhaps especially ) before it’s fully fledged. The rumour of their presence will cause audiences to doubt the spectacle and any displays of excellence, and to temper their sense of awe and pleasure in the presence of victory. Less obliquely: Adderall is addictive and harmful, and young cyber athletes who abuse the drug long term harm not only their developing profession, but also their developing minds and bodies.
*Steven requested that his surname be withheld from this article.
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